Shalai Is Breaking Into Modern

There’s more than one format for Dominaria to sink its nostalgic teeth into! Ross Merriam talks a sleeping card waiting to break out at SCG Baltimore!

The first week of Dominaria is in the books and in its initial run the set
has lived up to the hype. New cards were extremely popular for a set being
added late into an established Standard metagame and several of them
performed quite well. The format has seen a significant shake-up and should
continue to do so as we tune existing lists and further explore the set and
all its intricacies.

The impact on Modern, however, was modest. Outside of having a Karn, Scion
of Urza cast against me from an Affinity deck, I didn’t see a single new
card, and the default best deck going into the weekend, Humans, reached a
new level of dominance, taking ten of the 28 day 2 slots in last weekend’s

Most of the hype for Modern centered around Mox Amber, an obviously
powerful card that asks a lot in deckbuilding for it to work consistently.
It’s unclear if the card simply isn’t good enough or if it will take time
to find the right home, but it certainly didn’t show up. From the results
last weekend, it appears Dominaria might be a dud in Modern.

That is, of course, if you don’t look closely enough. Tucked away at the
bottom of the Modern Classic, a 248-person tournament, (aka larger than
some of the Opens I’ve top 8ed) taking 16th place is an innocuous Death and
Taxes list from Charlotte Lewis.

Normally I’d pass by such a list assuming it was a stock version of an
established archetype, but I had the good fortune of meeting Charlotte last
weekend and hearing firsthand about her experience with what could very
well be the standout Modern card from Dominaria:

The card certainly reads for Standard play rather than Modern. It’s a
mid-sized creature with an activated ability that takes over the long game.
The immediate impact is fairly small for a four-mana creature, and we’re
talking about a format that just swallowed up and spit out Bloodbraid Elf
and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. So what about this card makes it worth the
significant mana investment?

In talking with Charlotte, the answer comes from a collection of little
things that eventually add up to something that’s much more impressive than
it seems at a glance. None of its abilities leap off the page as
game-breaking, which is why it’s such an easy card to overlook, but if you
spend some time thinking about all the little things it does (which I did
on the ride home from Atlanta) you come to realize the scope of its ability
to impact games in Modern is enormous.

The most important aspect of the card is its ability to protect your other
creatures. Taking options away from your opponent is always a good idea,
and Shalai forces them to remove her from the battlefield first or have a
sweeper. If your opponent is sitting on removal that doesn’t answer Shalai,
like say, Lightning Bolt, that could spell trouble. Shalai completely
embarrasses the most popular removal spell in Modern. It also requires
Fatal Push to have revolt, which could lead to some awkwardly timed
fetchlands against Leonin Arbiter. Death and Taxes is all about making life
difficult for the opponent and Shalai continues that theme nicely.

It’s important to note that protecting your Leonin Arbiters and Thalia,
Guardian of Thrabens is going to lead to more games where your mana denial
plan overwhelms the opponent, so even if they do have the necessary removal
spell for Shalai, the damage may already be done.

This protection ability also combines perfectly with Eldrazi Displacer,
which in turn protects Shalai for the low cost of three mana. If you have
those two creatures on the battlefield, nearly all opposing removal spells
are going to be nullified. Aether Vial with Flickerwisp serves a similar
purpose as a one shot, though the timing can be awkward if your opponent
casts their removal during the end step, leaving Shalai stranded in exile
during the next turn. Tick up that Aether Vial one more time and Shalai can
enter the battlefield at instant speed, countering a removal spell for some
added value.

But Shalai doesn’t stop at protecting your creatures. She also protects her
controller with hexproof, an ability which is surprisingly good in Modern.
The obvious application is against burn, where Shalai is close to
unbeatable. The worst-case scenario is she trades for two burn spells by
herself. That by itself may be enough to swing a game and protecting her
once should put the game out of reach every time. The threat of a turn 4
Shalai may also change how your burn opponent sequences in the early turns,
since they are heavily incentivized to hold two burn spells that target
creatures. That turn 2 Searing Blaze may be too risky, giving you more
opportunity to race even in games where Shalai doesn’t make an appearance.

Against Storm, Shalai of course prevents Grapeshot from killing you, but
when they are combo-ing, it shouldn’t be that hard to answer the Shalai
first then recast a Grapeshot to your head. The more important role is in
preventing Gifts Ungiven from being cast, which is not only their primary
combo enabler but also the card that searches for their few answers to
problematic permanents.

Continuing down the list, the number of cards Shalai affects is staggering,
especially in combination with Aether Vial. It stops discard spells,
Liliana of the Veil’s edict ability, a lethal Scapeshift, Codex Shredder,
Thought-Knot Seer, Lightning Storm, Vendilion Clique, etc. The list is
virtually endless. Stopping any one of these cards doesn’t move the needle
on its own because no deck in Modern is more than 5-10 percent of the
metagame, but the versatility of Shalai’s abilities keep it relevant in
nearly every matchup.

But as I mentioned earlier, we may be entering an era in which Humans
becomes a clear number one deck and more popular than anything since the
height of Death’s Shadow. What does Shalai do against a deck that’s all
creatures? First it stops Kessig Malcontents, but that’s a minor point. The
primary role in that matchup is like that of the card it’s competing with
for space in Death and Taxes: Restoration Angel. That role is to check
Mantis Rider. Death and Taxes is quite good at clogging the ground, usually
with Blade Splicer. In those matchups Humans relies on Mantis Rider or a
heavy Lieutenant draw to break through, and Shalai shuts down one of those
angles of attack.

Finally, Shalai’s activated ability dominates any long game, especially
those between two creature decks. Gavony Township has long been a great
card in Modern and while that is largely due to appearing on a land and
thus, not taking away precious deck space from cards that are impactful
early, the fact that Shalai fills so many other roles means this ability
takes on a similar dynamic.

That this ability is such an afterthought is clear from Charlotte’s list
only including three green sources in the form of Horizon Canopy, lands
that often don’t survive until you have six mana. However, the card was
impressive enough that she mentioned a desire to try Brushland over Shefet
Dunes, since Shalai’s ability is significantly more powerful than the
Desert’s. Having played a bit with Death and Taxes myself and come away
unimpressed with Shefet Dunes, that’s a swap I can support.

However, if Shalai is indeed as good as its early returns seem, then I’d be
interested in reimagining the list to maximize her abilities. That means
moving to a G/W list of the deck, which is already an established variant.

The primary gain from green is Noble Hierarch. Most Mono-WhiteTaxes lists
include some number of Thraben Inspectors just to get more one mana plays
in the deck and Noble Hierarch is among the best in the format. Following
up with Leonin Arbiter + Ghost Quarter is an excellent opening, and
accelerating Blade Splicer and Shalai onto the battlefield is powerful as
well. The added threat of flooding is mitigated by Shalai’s activated
ability, which also led me to err on the high side of the land count with
23. Between Shalai and the ten utility lands it seems almost impossible to
flood out to me, so minimizing early stumbles, especially in a deck that’s
looking to disrupt its opponents’ mana is very important.

I’ve also added a singleton Ramunap Excavator which I don’t see in many
other lists. The lack of fetchlands prevents Excavator from reaching its
full potential, but the card is still quite powerful with Ghost Quarter and
Horizon Canopy so the first copy has value.

Lastly, most lists I see have Scavenging Ooze in the main deck, but I
prefer Voice of Resurgence since it forces opponents to play into your
Restoration Angels and Aether Vial tricks. It’s also still good against
Hollow One, the primary matchup where you’d want Ooze. Death and Taxes is
all about making the game as difficult as possible for the opponent, so
Voice seems to me like an easy inclusion.

Of course, Shalai can also help decks other than Death and Taxes. In fact,
if you scroll up the top 16 lists from the Modern Classic you’ll find her
as a singleton in three other lists, two different versions of Counters
Company and one Four-Color Saheeli. In all three, Shalai is simply a
singleton tutor target, but in that role she works quite well, serving both
as a way to protect the various combo pieces (even Saheeli Rai!) and as a
way to win fair games.

I’ve long been critical of Counters Company decks for their inability to
play a powerful fair game of Magic because the deck contains too many combo
elements that aren’t good in combat relative to the other creatures in
Modern. Finding a card that can cross over and play both game plans
simultaneously is the absolute best way at remedying this problem, so it’s
possible that those decks see a resurgence, especially with a matchup
against Humans that looks on paper to be quite good.

With Dominaria affecting Standard so heavily on its first weekend, the
performance of Shalai, Voice of Plenty in Modern could easily be
overlooked. It didn’t show up as much in the Team Open, nor did it take
home a trophy, but in older formats it typically takes more time to
properly incorporate new cards because the barrier to entry is so high.

That the card received very little hype during preview season, at least for
Modern play, also leads me to believe that many players who would’ve played
it in their decks simply overlooked it. With such wide applications, Shalai
could reasonably make it into any list that can cast her, so I’m expecting
a significant rise in her metagame presence as more players take note and
experiment with adding her to different decks. I’ve already convinced Todd
Stevens to try one over the main deck Worship he’s been playing in G/W
Value Town.

And I promise, the fact that no deck I play can beat a Worship had
absolutely nothing to do with it.